San Francisco's Birds & Batteries may be essentially a pop band, but the lushness of the act's songwriting and the ability to evoke and articulate complex emotions with poetry and intensity is a rare talent these days. The group's latest album, 2010's Panorama, lived up to its title as a thematically wide-ranging group of songs tackling politics and human relations without resorting to preachy lyrics or leaning on mere volume to communicate the meaning of the music in a visceral way.
Subtlety and grace is more this band's style; its songs and performances have a kind of quiet power that lingers in the mind. Don't think "indie rock" so much as a rock band in the mold of those great bands of yesteryear that didn't hold their noses at the idea of using electronics to help flesh out their sound.
In advance of the band's show tonight at the hi-dive, we had a chance to speak with frontman Michael Sempert about the influence of Bernie Worrell, the band's songwriting and the place of Birds & Batteries in the context of the sprawling community of music that exists in the Bay Area.
Westword: The synth sound you have on a lot of your music has shades of Bernie Worrell. Was his music at all an influence on at least that aspect of your songwriting?
Michael Sempert: Absolutely. I grew up listening to Talking Heads, and I definitely think my first exposure to synths was through Bernie but also through Stevie Wonder. A certain directness and excitement in his playing appealed to me.
Just like ELO, Mercury Rev, David Byrne and Peter Gabriel, there's a pretty even blend of electronic and organic sounds in your music. What got you interested in making a sound like that and what technical and songwriting challenges did you face in getting all of those elements to work together?
I feel like the greatest challenge for me is always to just put a song together that I want to sing every night on tour. The arrangement and the production is the fun stuff where you're exploring what the best sort of frame to put the picture in is. It's an important part of Birds & Batteries sound is the production. But it's just a way of framing the song itself.
I started writing music in college and trying to write jazz. I came to songwriting a little less directly. Those artists you mentioned were all artists I was listening to at that time, as well as Super Furry Animals and Radiohead, of course. Just putting on a record with headphones and escaping into this deep, multi-dimensional world and noticing new things every time -- that excitement about production motivated a lot of what I've tried to do with Birds & Batteries.
You recorded Panorama in part at Tiny Telephone. Why that studio in particular, and was John Vanderslice involved in any end of the engineering or production?
John was not involved in the engineering and production. But it's his studio and his spirit is a part of that place. He was friendly enough to hang out for a second when we were getting set up. He's sort of a fixture in the community, so working in his space is inspiring and it's great.
It came down to the space itself, the equipment they had and a certain devotion that he and the engineers who work there have, to using the best stuff, and doing it the best way, and not cutting corners when it comes to the sounds you create. I really do love that studio, but there's other great studios in San Francisco, as well.
We also did some recording at Hyde Street Studios, which is an amazing studio and the room itself has a ton of history. Credence Clearwater Revival, David Crosby and The Grateful Dead cut records in that small room so it has a ton of vibe and a great sound. We did most of our drums there and mixed there, so that's a big part of the record, as well.
You moved to San Francisco from the East Coast. Where on the East Coast did you come from, and how and did you end up in the Bay Area instead of in New York City?
I grew up outside Boston, and I think I grew up with a naturally antagonistic relationship with New York; it never seemed like my place. I think I'd always fantasized about California as a kid as kind of a dreamland, and it has that kind of appeal. I moved out here six or seven years ago in my early twenties. The sheer adventure of driving across country and moving to California was so appealing. I had some friends in San Francisco, and Los Angeles wasn't calling my name in the same way.
Do you feel like you're part of a larger musical community in San Francisco, and how would you characterize that community and/or what it's like for a band not yet famous to operate in that city when you're not on tour?
I should say half the band, including myself, live in Oakland, so both sides of the bay are included in this answer. The musical community for us, I think, is more really about friendship and support, as much as anything else. We have some close friends that do house parties where they cook food for everybody at a place called Ghost Mansion. It's a cool hangout and it's incredibly exciting -- as exciting, if not more so, than performing in front of a lot of people. It's a lot more intimate. When I think of "our community," that's what I think of.
In terms of San Francisco, I'm sort of happy to say we don't have a whole lot to do with any kind of "San Francisco sound." I've noticed more and more of the garage-y lo-fi thing, and it's really not what we do. It's cool, it's all fun.
You got your band name from the Tom Robbins novel Still Life With Woodpecker. Was his own very individual and eccentric body of literature an inspiration to your approach to making music?
[laughs] I never really thought of that. It's funny because I'm not a huge literature buff or anything, though I enjoy reading books. But I wouldn't consider him a big influence. I just liked the juxtaposition there. As an author, he hasn't had a big impact on me.
You called your album Panorama and that name conjures certain imagery. Did it serve as an encompassing title for the songs within?
The title relates to the record for me as a way of explaining a broad scope and perspective. The album is sort of a heavy one. "The Machine & The Vampire" is a song essentially about war. The song "The Villain," in its initial context, was about American capitalism. We also included it on the album, as well, because I think it works in the context of a sort of morality poem. There are mostly questions rather than answers, and hopefully, it covers a lot of ground in terms of good and evil and how we judge people and perceive ourselves. It's almost too simple to say but it's also about seeing the whole picture and not being myopic in your views.
When you do talk about politics, it seems as though you avoid any heavy-handed moralism...
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Politics are tough because you don't want to hit people over the head, for the most part. Some people do it, and it's awesome. But I'm not trying to be Woody Guthrie here. But obviously, those things influence all of us, and hopefully, it comes through in a way that's subtle enough to actually work.